Harry and Draco’s time of wandering the castle freely and poring over old library books had lasted a total of four days. That was holiday enough, in Severus’ opinion, and now they returned to studying and preparing for their N.E.W.T.s exams.
Harry and Draco had tried negotiating their way out of the pile of homework the man had come up with—some of it legitimate, and the rest, additional work he’d pulled out of Merlin knows where. But when Saturnine made it clear that she sided with her brother on this, they realised they’d lost the fight.
“We should have seen that coming,” Harry said as he scratched his head over a torturous Arithmancy equation. “Our parents are professors—guess we have standards to uphold or something.”
Draco, who sat at the other end of the kitchenette table, nose deep in charms theorems, chuckled. “Is it too late to ask for a different set of parents? Cooks or painters, maybe?”
Harry laughed, knowing the Slytherin blond didn’t want a change of custodians any more than he did. Their parents wanted them to succeed. They enforced a strict routine of studying and revision to ensure that they would both pass their exams so that Draco and Harry could choose whichever path they wanted once they left Hogwarts. Severus and Saturnine were doing this because they cared—because they loved them. And that knowledge filled Harry’s heart with joy—even if the task’s difficulty caused quite the headache.
A little before noon, Saturnine arrived by the passageway from the third floor. She’d been gone most of the morning to prepare equipment for the next Defence semester. Severus had been equally absent, spending his morning in the Potions classroom. Apparently, professors had homework during the holidays, too.
“How is it going?” Saturnine asked, peering at Draco’s parchment first and then at Harry’s.
“Slowly,” Harry replied.
Draco gave her a martyred sigh that was a close match for how he felt.
“Put those away for now; it’s almost lunchtime,” she instructed. They were all too happy to comply.
“Out of curiosity,” Harry asked as he moved all his school stuff to the coffee table, “how did you do on your N.E.W.T.s?”
“Sweet Circe, that was a long time ago,” she said, conjuring a pitcher of lemonade from the kitchens. “I aced Potions and Defence. But I’m not sure I can remember them all.”
“Don’t try to spare our feelings,” Draco said, taking both his and Harry’s quills and ink bottles off the kitchen table. “We have no doubts that you must have had many Outstandings—just tell us how many.”
“Well,” Saturnine said with an amused smile, “I took six subjects and got away with one E and five Os.”
“Hmm—so clearly you got an O in Defence Against the Dark Arts and Potions,” Harry started. “I’ll say Charms and Transfiguration, too.”
Saturnine nodded to indicate he was correct so far.
Draco joined in on the game. “And you took six subjects. So, that leaves us with two more contenders. I’ll guess you took Herbology and—Arithmancy?”
She nodded again. “Correct, so far.”
“Arithmancy is a hell of a lot more difficult than Herbology,” Harry remarked. But he’d gone to Saturnine for help with his equations, and she’d been scarily quick at unravelling them. Could it be she had been less than stellar at her Herbology exam, then?
“Arithmancy, then?” Draco asked, sitting back down opposite Saturnine.
“No, Herbology,” Harry declared before sliding into the seat next to the dark-haired witch. “I say you got an Exceeds Expectations in Herbology.”
Saturnine gave him a peck on the cheek. “And you would be right, lad. This Ravenclaw let a Mandrake bite her finger during her N.E.W.T. exam.”
“What of Severus?” Draco asked, leaning forward in his seat a little. “Please tell me it wasn’t all Os. We can’t compete with that.”
Saturnine leaned forward and whispered in a mock-confessional tone, “It wasn’t.”
“All right—give us the numbers, and we’ll see if we can guess what he did,” Harry said, gearing up for another game.
Saturnine thought about it for a moment and said, “If I remember correctly, six subjects, four Outstandings, and two Exceeds Expectations.”
“You beat him?” Draco asked, surprised.
“Glad to see you didn’t think me capable of it,” Saturnine replied with amusement. Then, pointing at her chest, she added, “Ravenclaw, remember?”
“Yeah, but—he’s Severus,” Draco said, waving a hand up and down, as if that explained everything. “I would have thought ten subjects and straight Os or something.”
Saturnine chuckled at that. “Though he may look like he is, he isn’t all-knowing. There was a time when he didn’t even know how to write down his own name, you know.”
An image of a very young Severus carefully learning his letters with a Muggle pen in his hand popped inside Harry’s head. And it was so out of place that he laughed so hard he hiccupped. The fact that the man in question chose that moment to enter the living room only doubled his amusement.
“Did I miss something?” he asked as he sat down opposite Harry.
Draco, who was smiling, too, steadfastly refused to look Severus’ way, probably worried that if he did, he would join in Harry’s bout of hilarity. Saturnine was doing a better job at containing herself. But she was clearly amused by the situation.
“Nothing much, dear,” she said. “The boys only just realised we were children, too, at one time.”
“Glad to see the subject is so amusing to you,” he drawled out before crossing his arms over his chest.
When noon struck, plates of food popped on their small table, Apparating straight from the Hogwarts kitchens. Today was chicken fillet, wild rice, and peas, Harry noticed through the tears of laughter in his eyes. Damn, but he had better get a hold of himself if he wanted to be able to eat something.
Forcing himself to do a few Arithmancy equations in his head, he managed to get his mirth under control.
“Sorry,” he said to Severus. “I couldn’t stop once I got going. I just got this funny image in my head of you holding a Muggle pen in primary school while you learned to write, and I couldn’t get it out.”
That got a small smile from Severus and an open chuckle from Saturnine. Then they all started eating in silence. There was a tasty mushroom sauce to go with the chicken, and Harry took a double helping.
Draco was the first to finish, and he resumed their game. “O in Potions, obviously—and in Defence,” he said.
Saturnine nodded over a mouthful of peas.
“O in Charms,” Harry guessed between two bites.
“Correct,” she said after swallowing her vegetables.
“What are we playing at?” Severus demanded once he’d finished his plate.
“The boys were interested in our N.E.W.T.s scores,” Saturnine explained. “They guessed at mine earlier, and they’re now having a go at yours. I only told them the number of subjects we took and the number of Os and Es that we got.”
“Oh,” he said, arching an impetuous eyebrow. “A day of introspection, indeed.”
“Okay, three more subject to guess at,” Harry said, checking with Severus that they’d been given the correct number of subjects. Severus gave him a short nod. “Herbology, definitely, and Transfiguration.”
“Obviously,” he said.
“I’ll venture you got an O in Herbology,” Draco said before taking a sip of pumpkin juice. “It’s such an important part of potion-making, and you often assist Professor Sprout.”
Severus dipped his head in the affirmative.
“You got an E in Transfiguration?” Harry asked, aghast. While it was still an excellent result and one he hoped to get for himself, it was funny to learn that the grand Severus Snape hadn’t always been the confident wizard he was today.
“Was it with Professor McGonagall?” Draco asked.
“What happened?” he demanded. “You’re amazing with a wand.”
“Yes, brother-mine—what did happen?” Saturnine asked with a smile that made it clear she already knew the answer and that it was a funny story.
“Did she tell you that she let a Mandrake bite her during her Herbology exam?” Severus asked.
Harry stopped eating to focus on the conversation at hand. It had to be quite the story if Severus was trying to deflect the attention away from himself.
“She did,” Draco confirmed. “And we had a good laugh about it. But we were talking about your Transfiguration exam, Professor Snape.”
“If memory serves,” Saturnine said, her smile turning predatory, “at some point, students that year were required to transfigure mice into frogs, weren’t they?”
“Which I successfully did,” Severus pointed out, raising an imperious index finger.
Saturnine nodded. “Very successfully—if the rumours were to be believed.”
Severus sighed and seemed to decide that he was willing to tell the story after all. Looking slightly sheepish, he explained, “I went a little overboard and made a particularly large specimen. Only it never quite forgot that it was a mouse, and when Filch’s cat sauntered by the classroom, it leapt away in fear. It bounced up and down the length of the classroom, smashed through a window, and died a painful death when it hit rock-bottom twenty feet below.”
Draco tried hard to keep a collected face, but Harry had given up trying mid-way through the story.
“It was a stupid accident that could have happened to anyone. That bloody cat should never have been there in the first place,” Severus tried defending himself.
“The whole school heard what happened,” Saturnine explained between two chuckles. “Some first-years actually cried for the poor animal.”
Severus looked so uncomfortable with the whole conversation that Harry’s heart went out to him. It wasn’t just Harry and Draco who had to get used to having people caring about them—it went both ways. And a comfortable, funny conversation between family members was clearly an unfamiliar situation for the Potions Master. Harry vowed they would have many more of those in the future until it became the new normal for all of them.
“Sorry to have to break it to you, Severus,” Draco said, clearly not being sorry at all, “but the whole school still hears about it.”
The potioneer’s eyebrows shot up at that.
“Right,” Harry said, catching on. “McGonagall tells the story every year.”
“Fifth-year introductory speech,” Draco continued. “Always be mindful of your animals; never let them out of your sight—”
“—or you’ll end up like that foolish boy whose frog smashed through a window during his N.E.W.T.s exam,” Harry finished.
“Foolish boy?” Severus demanded.
“Foolish boy,” Draco confirmed with a nod. “Her own yearly private joke at your expense, I suppose.”
“I’d have gotten an O without that blasted cat,” Severus said before vanishing the dishes with a large swipe of his wand.
“But you didn’t,” Saturnine said with a smile, “and that brings us to the last question mark of today’s entertainment session. Who cares to venture a guess at which subject proved to be just a tad too difficult for our very exacting Potions professor?”
Taking a more official tone, Saturnine added, “The contestants are Arithmancy, Ancient Runes, Care of Magical Creatures, Muggle Studies, History of Magic, Astronomy, and Divination.”
“I think we can safely rule out Divination,” Harry said.
“And History of Magic,” Draco added.
“Correct on both accounts,” Saturnine said. “Five contestants left.”
Harry chanced a glance at Severus for inspiration. But the man’s face was utterly blank, save for the small smile tucked at the corner of his lips. Severus was amused by their game. But it was clear he wouldn’t be of any help.
“No Muggle Studies, either,” Harry said. “It would have been too easy a class for you, and you like a challenge.”
Severus nodded, and Harry felt glad to have gotten it right.
“Four contestants left,” Saturnine said. “Arithmancy, Ancient Runes, Care of Magical Creatures, and Astronomy.”
There was little than Severus enjoyed more than Potions, Harry knew. It was a safe assumption that he’d known early on that his career would lean towards that subject. It was no surprise, then, that he’d taken Charms and Herbology classes. Those were on par with Potions and a requirement to become a talented potioneer. Defence Against the Dark Arts had been an equally logical choice given the dark times he lived in.
No potioneer worth his salt would ever be caught using transfigured ingredients, though. So that subject choice must have stemmed from a personal interest. As a fellow Muggle-raised kid, Harry could understand the appeal of Professor McGonagall’s classes. Seeing one object morph into another at the flick of a wand still amazed him seven years later, and he guessed young Severus must have felt the same way.
Harry tried looking at his own choices for inspiration. He had taken Care of Magical Creatures because Hagrid was his friend, and Harry loved his classes. And he had taken Arithmancy because as far back as he could remember, he’d always been good at maths, and Arithmancy was the magical equivalent of Muggle calculus.
Harry repeated the four subjects’ names in his head, again and again, to see if it rattled something, but that got him nowhere. Looking to his right, he saw that Draco was as deep in thought as he was, and he realised that this had turned into so much more than a silly game to pass the time. It had stopped being about Severus’ N.E.W.T.s results a long time ago; they were challenging their very own knowledge of the man and his interests and passions.
“Not Ancient Runes,” Draco said at last. “You consider it to be barely better than Divination.”
“Correct,” Saturnine said. “Three subjects left: Arithmancy, Care of Magical Creatures, and Astronomy.”
Harry’s brain started to hurt because he thought so much. Had Severus gone with one of the same choices he had? The familiarity of Arithmancy or the wondrous aspect of Magical Creatures?
Think, he told himself. Think, think, think. He was furiously going over everything he knew of Severus—every passing comment and personal information he’d ever volunteered—to solve the riddle.
He was tempted to rule out Astronomy, but then he reminded himself that he wasn’t the only one playing this game. He wouldn’t make it any easier for Draco by removing a potential false answer. Draco, who—he reminded himself—had the unfair advantage of having known Severus his entire life.
“Don’t say it aloud,” Harry said, pointing at Draco. “And no more removing subjects. When you’ve decided on your answer, you can whisper it to Saturnine, and I’ll do the same. She’ll tell us afterwards who got it right.”
“Deal,” Draco agreed, seeming to appreciate the new rules as much as he did.
Glancing up at Severus, Harry studied his face intently. The man’s amusement had given way to something more profound, and Harry surmised he, too, now understood that this had become more than an idle game to pass the time. He was curious to see if they would find the answer and knew him well enough to guess.
Harry was more determined than ever to get it right—and sure that Severus’ choice had to be of the ‘personal interest’ kind. It had nothing to do with Potions, the Dark Lord, or any of that. It was something Severus had chosen to pursue simply because he had liked the subject.
Severus Snape was an introverted boy from the Midlands who grew up in a dysfunctional family in a dilapidated town in the middle of nowhere. He was caught between an abusive father and a detached mother. What had he relied upon to bring some cheer to his life? Harry tried picturing it—a small house in a rundown street, a lonely boy locked up in a bedroom with no toys to play with. What had he turned to?
And then it hit him. What were the only constant companions to lonely little boys and girls all over the world through sleepless nights? Turning in his seat, he leaned towards Saturnine and whispered in her ear, “Astronomy.”
She kept her face blank for the sake of the game, but Harry knew that he had the correct answer.
At the other end of the table, Draco was still thinking his way through the possibilities. He’d worked up a sweat, Harry saw. Determined not to influence the outcome and inadvertently ruin Draco’s chances to show that he, too, knew Severus better than the man thought, Harry remained silent as he sipped his pumpkin juice.
It took well over ten minutes for Draco’s eyes to suddenly widen. His lips stretched to a smile, and he hurried to lean over the table so that he could whisper his answer into Saturnine’s ear. Then he slumped back in his chair, exhausted as if he’d just passed the bloody N.E.W.T.s.
“Care to venture a guess at how many correct answers I got?” Saturnine asked her brother. Her face had remained blank when Draco made his postulate, leaving Severus with no indicator of the boys’ answers—other than his gut. His obsidian eyes moved between Harry and Draco as he carefully considered the question. And the question was, did they know him enough to guess correctly? Did they care enough about him?
In his heart, Harry prayed that Draco had also got it right. But a little voice at the back of his mind told him that he must have—though he’d probably taken quite a different route to get to the finish line.
Severus shook his head no, and Saturnine gave him an understanding smile.
“What do you boys think?” she asked.
“I think I got it right,” Harry said. “Dead certain.”
Draco sat a little straighter. “Me, too.”
“And you’re both correct about your assumption,” Saturnine said with a warm smile. “Severus willingly submitted himself to endless cold nights spent outside crunching his neck to look at the stars.”
“Why did you get an E?” Draco asked, turning in his seat a little.
“I misremembered a date,” Severus said dismissively. “Never mind that. How did you figure it out?”
“I remembered sitting on your knees one night when I was very little. You pointed at the stars and told me their names,” Draco said.
“You remembered that?” Severus asked, clearly taken aback. “You must have been only four or five years old.”
Draco shrugged. “The good memories stay with you the longest.”
Severus leaned in to place a soft kiss on his head at that. Then he turned to Harry with eyes brimming with emotions. “What about you, Harry? How could you possibly know?”
“Easy,” he replied with a soft, understanding smile. “The stars were all you had to look at when you were little, and you couldn’t sleep at night.”
Severus nodded, and Harry got the feeling that he was close to tears. Sitting up, he moved to the other side of the table to hug him.
“Smart boy,” he murmured over his head, and Harry smiled into his chest.
“So, four Os and two Es on one side and five Os and one E on the other. You guys sure are setting the bar really high,” Draco said, trying to be funny. “I hope you don’t expect us to follow in your footsteps.”
“But of course we do,” Saturnine said. “I promise a special treat to whoever manages to equal or surpass my results.”
“Couldn’t you set the bar a little lower?” Harry asked, leaning forward a little. “Like Severus’ level or lower.”
“While I will admit to my mistake in Astronomy, I still maintain that I should have gotten an O in Transfiguration,” Severus said, clearly displeased to be considered the second-best. “I did perform an admirable Transfiguration Spell. It’s not my fault that that blasted cat scared my frog into committing suicide.”
“And yet…” Saturnine said, sitting up and stretching her back. “And yet…”
“And yet, nothing,” Severus said, frowning at her. “I was just as good as you were.”
“Funny that, but I seem to recall getting an O in Transfiguration,” she tossed over her shoulder as she walked towards the sofa.
“As I would have had, had Filch’s cat not ruined my exam,” Severus countered, turning in his seat so that he could keep staring at her, hard. “I say it doesn’t count.”
“Excuse me, but whose frog died a grisly death again?” Saturnine turned on her heel to fix him with a challenging gaze. “My bunny lived on happily ever after, believing it was a canary.”
“You let a Mandrake bite your finger off,” Severus reminded her.
“And you got a date wrong in Astronomy,” she volleyed back. “Save your breath, brother-mine. Whichever way you look at it, I beat you. Admit it.”
Severus moved Harry out of the way so that he could stand and face her. Harry sat down in his vacated chair, curious to see how this would pan out. Next to him, Draco was clearly enjoying the show as much as he was.
“Transfiguration didn’t count,” Severus retorted. “I demand a rematch.”
“What?” she said, bemused. “You can’t get a rematch, Severus. It’s the N.E.W.T.s scores, not a bloody Quidditch game. You only take them once.”
“Who says we can’t retake them?” Severus demanded, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Are you serious?” Hands on her hips, Saturnine huffed a laugh. “You’d go through the trouble just because you can’t admit that I was better than you?”
“You weren’t. That’s my point,” Severus said, stepping forward. “So—afraid to lose?”
“Of course not,” she replied, advancing on him, too, and raising a challenging eyebrow. “I already won once. I’ll win again.”
“All our old N.E.W.T.s—except Arithmancy and Astronomy, which only one of us took,” he proposed. “Theory and practical.”
“What of Potions and Defence?” she questioned. “You want us to answer our own tests?”
“We’ll have someone else devise the questions this year,” he proposed. “That way, we can both take it on equal footing.”
“You’re mad, Sev,” Saturnine said, chuckling lightly, but her smile made it clear that she had to be equally cuckoo because she would agree to the challenge.
“The same subjects, questions, and conditions,” Severus said, leaning forward with an almost predatory look. “You can’t say no to that, sister-mine.”
“Fine. You’re on—you crazy, eccentric, lunatic stargazer,” Saturnine said, holding out a hand.
“What do you wager?” Draco asked while the siblings shook hands to seal the deal. “Five Os each?”
Harry nodded. “Definitely.”The blond sighed. “We’re so screwed.”